The Rise of Alternative MBA Rankings

Article Icon Article
Thursday, November 9, 2023
By Nick Harland
Photo by iStock/AzmanL
A new wave of alternative MBA rankings is giving prospective students different ways to evaluate business schools.
  • These new rankings measure factors that major conventional rankings have omitted, such as sustainability, school culture, and societal impact.
  • Now, major rankings and accreditation bodies are incorporating some of these factors into their own methodologies.
  • Although it seems unlikely that they’ll ever replace traditional MBA rankings, the newer rankings offer students an alternative way of measuring the quality of a business school.

Part of the reason behind the longevity of the MBA has been its ability to adapt. Although the fundamentals of the program haven’t changed much since the first MBA was launched at Harvard University in 1908, it has constantly adapted and evolved since then to meet the evolving demands of the market. Modern MBAs offer a wider-ranging experience to candidates than ever before.

Now, a number of alternative rankings are trying to measure the impact of those changes. They’re going beyond the traditional measures of MBA quality—graduate salary, tuition fees, employment rate—to instead measure factors such as equality, sustainability, and societal impact.

Welcome to the new generation of MBA rankings.

The Alternative MBA Rankings

Corporate Knights Better World MBA

Possibly the first example of an alternative MBA ranking, the Corporate Knights Better World MBA was first published in 2004 as part of the Knight Schools survey. It measures several indicators related to sustainability, with the most influential being how many sustainability courses are embedded within a school’s MBA program.

The list also looks at the volume of sustainability research published by the institution, as well as its level of gender and racial diversity.

Positive Impact Rating

Several new rankings have entered this emerging space since the Corporate Knights Better World MBA was established. One of those is the Positive Impact Rating (PIR), which was launched in 2020. It widens the scope beyond sustainability and more toward societal impact.

To compile the ranking, the PIR surveys more than 12,000 students worldwide. They’re asked 20 questions related to their school’s positive impact on society. Each question has the same rating scale: 1 ("I don't agree") to 10 ("I completely agree"). The results from this survey are collated to give each school a PIR of zero to 10.

Financial Times and Times Higher Education

The major ranking bodies have responded to the rise of these alternative lists by incorporating new indicators into their methodologies.

For instance, Times Higher Education (THE) launched THE Impact Rankings in 2019, which measures schools directly against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

In the same year, the Financial Times (FT) added a corporate social responsibility indicator to their Global MBA ranking methodology. They subsequently incorporated a new carbon footprint score into their methodology in 2023.

How Do They Differ From Traditional Rankings?

Broadly speaking, these new rankings shift the focus from traditional quantitative measures of MBA program quality, such as graduate salary and employment rate. Instead, they attempt to measure factors including:

  • Sustainability
  • Societal impact
  • Diversity
  • School culture
  • Responsible leadership development

They also represent a move away from the reductionist nature of traditional rankings. For example, the Positive Impact Rating doesn’t rank schools individually. Instead, it assigns each one a score and places them into one of five different groups: Beginning, Emerging, Progressing, Transforming, and Pioneering. It means schools are less subject to major ranking changes from year to year.

How Schools Are Using These Rankings to Improve

So how are schools incorporating these rankings into their processes

According to Katrin Muff, co-founder and president of the Positive Impact Rating Association, schools tend to use the ranking as “a tool for internal development” rather than “a comparative rating.” In other words, schools aren’t necessarily intent on climbing these new rankings. Instead, they use the data from the lists to identify areas of improvement and celebrate successes.

Schools can also use the data in other ways. Because the data are verified by the ranking provider, schools can use them as part of their application to the likes of the FT and THE rankings. And that’s not all. Since AACSB now includes societal impact as part of its accreditation standards, these new rankings can also support business schools through the accreditation process.

Why Are They Becoming More Popular?

It’s clear that MBA students in 2023 want different things than students did even just 10 years ago. They’re no longer simply looking for a program that gives them a better job, or more money, or a promotion. Instead, they also want a school that aligns with their personal goals, and one that can help them make a positive impact in the world. These rankings help them find schools and MBA programs like that.

Additionally, there’s simply a greater awareness among students of topics such as diversity, sustainability, and business as a force for good. These are also key considerations of any modern business, and as ever, MBA rankings are adapting to that change.

Are They the Future of MBA Rankings?

Despite the rise in popularity of these rankings, it’s difficult to see them displacing the established lists anytime soon. In the 2023 GMAC Prospective Students Survey, students still largely pointed to financial factors as their reasons for choosing an MBA, such as the desire to increase income (64 percent), build wealth (58 percent), and change industry/job function (56 percent).

There’s also the question of whether the alternative rankings can exist on their own, or whether they may simply be absorbed into bigger rankings. But in an article for AACSB last year, Katrina Muff said that the Positive Impact Rating could only exist as a standalone list.

[These rankings] offer a more holistic view of MBA programs, allowing students to choose a school that not only helps them achieve their professional goals, but one that also aligns with their personal principles.

“We originally had considered creating a rating that could be integrated into existing ranking systems,” she writes. “But after one and a half years, during which we tested three survey prototypes at schools in different geographic areas, our next steps were hotly debated in international sessions. By 2019, we acknowledged that our rating was too radically different to work within any existing ranking.”

Regardless of what the future holds for these rankings, their value to students is clear. They offer a more holistic view of MBA programs, allowing students to choose a school that not only helps them achieve their professional goals, but one that also aligns with their personal principles. Business schools and rankings are evolving to reflect that.

The MBA has been defined by its ability to adapt, and an evolution in rankings is the latest step of that more than 100-year story. If history is anything to go by, it’s unlikely to be the last.

Nick Harland
Freelance Higher Education Writer
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.